Aereo, Cell Phone Privacy Among Wednesday's Supreme Court Decisions

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The Supreme Court handed down two major decisions on Wednesday that both arose from the problems of applying long-established principles to modern technology.

In a 6-3 opinion, the Supreme Court ruled against streaming broadcast TV company Aereo, deciding that the service is a "public" performance of the copyrighted local broadcast content it retransmits through digital antennas to the streaming devices of its paying customers. Although the ruling just came out and experts are still combing through it, SCOTUSblog's early take is that the decision is "sweeping and definitive" in its conclusion that Aereo is illegal. With today's decision, television networks will be able to keep collecting hefty fees for the transmission of their content. 

Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the court, with Justice Scalia penning the dissent. Breyer noted that the court had to answer two related questions to get to its decision against the service: Is what Aereo does a "performance" of the TV companies' content, and is that performance public? The court concluded yes to both, arguing that Aereo bears an "overwhelming likeness" to the cable companies specifically targeted by amendments to the Copyright Act in 1976. Here's part of Breyer's logic on Aereo's "public" performance: 

The subscribers to whom Aereo transmits television programs constitute “the public.” Aereo communicates the same contemporaneously perceptible images and sounds to a large number of people who are unrelated and unknown to each other. This matters because, although the Act does not define “the public,” it specifies that an entity performs publicly when it performs at “any place where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” Ibid. The Act thereby suggests that “the public” consists of a large group of people outside of a family and friends. 

The Aereo decision was one of two big decisions out of the high court today. Two major cellphone privacy cases — Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie — were decided together.  The court ruled that police generally may not search the digital contents of a cellphone taken from a suspect during an arrest. "Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee's person," the opinion reads. The decision was unanimous, with an opinion from Chief Justice Roberts (Justice Alito wrote a separate opinion, but concurred in part and in judgement). Here is the decision's strong conclusion in favor of privacy rights: 

Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life." The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple— get a warrant."

We'll have more on both cases shortly.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.